Separation Anxiety is how we describe the feelings some children have when they are apart from those who make them feel safest – often their parents or carers. Most babies and children will find separation hard at times.
Separation anxiety is an expected developmental stage. Some children will struggle with it for longer and at different times because of their life experiences and / or individual personality.
At around six months old you will probably notice that your baby worries when you are out of sight. Developmentally your baby has realised that they are a separate person from you and can be left behind. This is hard for them and often the beginning of some ‘separation anxiety’.
For the next few years you will probably notice some times when they seem ‘clingy’ and upset when they can’t be close to you.
Some children will continue to feel separation anxiety throughout childhood - some or all of the time. It might be triggered by upsets or changes in their life that make them feel ‘wobbly’ or they may just be more prone to worrying.
If your baby or child has separation anxiety they may well get very upset at parting from you. It can be hard for parents to understand what it is all about, but the feelings and worry about being separated from you are very real for your child.
Whatever the age of your child your understanding of how hard this feels for them is important. The way you react and support them can help them feel better and less worried about being apart. It may take time to build their confidence but it is important they learn that they can cope and you are both still safe when separated.
Babies & Toddlers
You are the centre of your baby’s world. They rely on you for everything. In the early months you have responded to all of their needs and made them feel safe and secure. It is not surprising that when they begin to understand that you could leave them behind, they feel worried and upset if you are out of sight.
Help them begin to feel confident by building up from very short moments when they can’t see you. Games like peek-a-boo are good early ways of showing your baby you always come back.
Help your baby practice being apart from you at home first;
Once your baby is mobile they will probably follow you. Let them do this when they can do so safely; it will help them realise that you don’t ‘disappear’ when you are out of sight.
Leaving Your Child With Others
Your baby might have to be left with other family and friends, childminders or at nursery. If you know this is going to happen build up to it. It is important that the number of different people who look after your baby is kept as low as possible and your child has had the chance to meet them.
When you first leave them with family or friends, it should be;
If your baby is really upset go back to them – you can try again another time soon.
Nurseries and childminders should be able to guide you on their policies to help your child get used to them, settle in and adjust to spending time there without you.
Be careful that you do not pass on your own anxieties. Your baby will pick up on your feelings and so it is important that you seem confident and give them the message this is going to be fine.
If you are feeling worried talk to friends and family to get support or you can join our online local parent community below. People who have been through this with their own children will remember how hard it can be to begin with.
Children go through lots of developmental change and new experiences as they grow up. This can make them feel uncertain sometimes and they will look to you to help them feel safe and secure.
If your child seems to be clingy and / or get distressed when you are not close by have a think about what is going on for them.
It might be something obvious like starting nursery or a new baby in the family. It could be something less obvious like picking up on arguments and bad feelings in the home or changes in routines.
Your child might be showing that they need extra time being close to you. Try and spend some time together. This could just mean more cuddles and story time, or a walk to the shop where you concentrate on each other.
Your child might struggle at particular times. Some children may find being left at nursery or playgroup hard. This can be upsetting for you both.
Keep going – give them comfort and let them know you understand they are finding it hard. Show that you believe they can do it. Given time most children settle and feel confident that you will be back soon and can enjoy their time at nursery.
Starting school is a big step for children and their families. Most children will have some days when they are not keen to go. For some the early weeks and months at school can be really tough, as they adjust to new people and experiences.
Preparing your child for starting school can help them feel more confident about what to expect.
You can help your child settle by;
Build in time to just be with them after school and at weekends. Encourage them to talk about their day and their feelings.
Read more about getting school ready
Even if children have just settled in or have been attending school for a long time, there may still be spells when the distress at being left comes back. If this happens talk to your child and school to see what might have triggered this. Think about any changes that have happened in their home life that might have unsettled them.
Children might worry about things that happen in the school day or that something bad could happen to you whilst you are apart.
Try not to get frustrated or annoyed by your child’s need to be with you. Even though it might be difficult to understand why they are struggling. It is hard for them and they cannot help it. It will pass in time. Get support for yourself from friends and family.
Older Children & Teens
For many children separation anxiety mostly disappears as they get older. For some older children and teenagers it continues to be something they find hard, or becomes difficult for the first time. This can be for all sorts of reasons.
Young people can find this difficult as developmentally they are beginning to want to be with friends more and do things more independently. Separation anxiety can get in the way of what they would like to be doing.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Your child might show they have separation anxiety in slightly different ways as they get older.
It is a really tough age to struggle with separation anxiety. It gets in the way of being able to enjoy school or to be with friends.
Supporting Separation Anxiety
Avoiding the thing that makes them anxious might make it feel better in the moment. But It will not prove to your child that their worry is not a fact. This can mean the anxiety keeps holding them back.
It is not easy but doing the thing they are worried about can show them that they can do it. It shows them nothing bad will happen. It will be hard at first but if they keep trying it will get easier over time.
Help them make a plan to give time apart a try. It will help them feel more in control. For example if they are invited to meet a friend they could;
Trying to challenge the anxiety is the important thing but it can take time to reach their goal. Praise them for this and get them to see the progress they make even if it is slow.
If school attendance is a problem talk to school as soon as you can; they will be able to offer support to you and your child.
Some young people will need extra help to overcome their separation anxiety. Getting help can make all the difference. It can mean they can enjoy school life and being with friends.
If you are worried about the affect COVID-19 has had on your child, talk to school or call Just One Number to talk to a health professional. You can contact the Healthy Child Programme by calling Just One Number on 0300 300 0123 or texting Parentline on 07520631590. Our opening hours are 8am-6pm Monday-Friday (excluding bank holidays) and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.
If you are 11-19 you can text ChatHealth on 07480 635060 for confidential advice from one of our team.
For adults Qwell provides free, safe and anonymous mental wellbeing support for adults in Norfolk and Waveney from a professional team of qualified counsellors.
For 11–25 year olds Kooth is a free, confidential and safe way to receive online counselling, advice and emotional well-being support.
Childline - Children and young people under 19 can call 0800 1111 for free support.
Young Minds Parents Helpline - Call 0808 802 5544 for free Mon-Fri from 9.30am to 4pm.
To speak to other Norfolk parents and carers, you can join our online community forum below.